Story highlights

Clinton is faltering in other key states such as Florida and Ohio

Election is playing out as North Carolina grapples with the fallout from House Bill 2

Raleigh, North Carolina CNN  — 

Hillary Clinton – facing a dramatically tightening race and a troubling lack of enthusiasm – is looking to this steadily changing state as an opportunity to stabilize her path to the White House and force Republicans to play offense.

Clinton’s challenge: Rebuilding Obama’s winning coalition

A sign of how seriously the Democratic nominee is taking North Carolina: it’s the first place she visited last week when she returned to the campaign trail following a bout with pneumonia. President Barack Obama traveled to Charlotte this summer for his first campaign appearance with Clinton and is expected to return to the state repeatedly in October.

The focus on North Carolina – a state President Barack Obama carried narrowly in 2008 but lost four years later – comes as polls show Clinton faltering in other battlegrounds such as Florida and Ohio. A win here would almost certainly offset losses in those states and guarantee her the presidency. And the raging culture war over LGBT rights playing out in the state offers her an opportunity to appeal to progressives and encourage them to show up on Election Day.

Clinton has reason for some cautious optimism. A Quinnipiac poll released September 8 shows Clinton with a 4-point lead, just outside the margin of error.

“It’s a coin toss,” said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “We are dealing with a 45/45 split. The electorate is baked, the remaining 10% are folks who will decide at the last minute, and say ‘I can’t stand either one.’ We are in a holding pattern unless something monumental happens.”

Why Democrats are anxious

Republican nominee Donald Trump is fighting hard for the state. He held a rally last week in Asheville and will be back in North Carolina Tuesday.

But the election is playing out as the state is grappling with the fallout from House Bill 2, the so-called bathroom bill that requires people to use the bathroom of their biological gender. It also bans municipalities from passing rules barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Since the legislation’s passage earlier this year, North Carolina – with a long reputation as being one of the more progressive southern states – has seen a blow to its image. The NBA, NCAA, and ACC have pulled major sporting events out of the state, resulting in millions in lost revenues, a substantial economic and cultural blow to a sport-crazy state.

State politics upended

And the state’s politics have been upended. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is lagging his Democratic challenger and GOP Sen. Richard Burr is in an unexpectedly competitive re-election race.

Democrats see the issue as a rallying call to engage the Obama coalition and possibly, moderate Republicans.

“I’m running for the LGBT teenager here in North Carolina who sees your governor sign a bill legalizing discrimination and suddenly feels like a second-class citizen,” Clinton said at her Greensboro rally. “And if anyone wonders what the costs of discrimination are, just ask the people and businesses of North Carolina.”

But Carter Wren, a Republican strategist doubts that House Bill 2 or McCrory’s standing, will determine the presidential race here.

“The polling stuff I have seen on HB2, it didn’t cut, everybody had an opinion, but it didn’t change how people vote,” he said. “It’s all about Hillary and Trump and mostly about character, that’s what people are questioning more than the issues.”

Kaine splits with Clinton on some Trump supporters as ‘irredeemable’

And Clinton is facing the same trouble here that she is nationwide: ginning up enthusiasm – especially among young voters – that she’ll need to replicate Obama’s winning coalition. Even voters here who are enthused by Clinton’s candidacy recognize that others aren’t that plugged into the race.

“Some of my friends are on the fence. They say Trump is horrible, but they are not sure about Clinton,” said Cydnee Mebane, 19, who saw Clinton speak in Greensboro. “They say they won’t vote or they will vote for a third party. With my generation, we are either apathetic or too smart for our own good.”

Daisy Goodwin, 65, was initially for Clinton during the primaries in 2008, but flipped to Obama. She expressed fear over what a Trump presidency would look like, and frustration that during voter registration drives, “a lot of people said they aren’t going to vote.”

‘Where is Oprah?’

“She should bring Barack and Michelle. That will turn people out and we have to go door-to-door,” said Goodwin, a retired beautician from High Point. “And where is Oprah?”

Another challenge for Democrats is broadening their appeal among white voters, who have been increasingly voting less Democratic in Southern states, a trend that can’t be entirely offset by gains with other demographic groups.

While the African American vote remained steady from 2008 to 2012, a notable share of white voters shifted from Obama – he won 31% of the white vote in 2012, down from 35% in 2008 according to exit polls.

Obama: Would be ‘personal insult’ to legacy if black voters don’t back Clinton

Still, Trump has clear vulnerabilities.

“If I am Trump, my problem is with undecided voters who supported [Mitt] Romney,” Wren said. “There are a fair amount of those people who voted for Romney, don’t like Clinton but don’t like Trump.”

That’s especially true in North Carolina, a state with an influx of new residents drawn to a tech boom in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. The population growth has swelled the ranks of unaffiliated and more educated voters.

Clinton and her allies have flooded the airwaves with millions in ads, targeting veterans, black millennials, suburban white voters and black churchgoers. Nearly $13 million in TV ads have been reserved through November.

Priorities USA launched a $400,000 digital ad buy on Facebook, Instagram and Pandora with one ad called “Most Racist Person,” where Trump falsely claims that Obama is not an American citizen.

This past Saturday, Democratic volunteers from around the state gathered at different campaign offices to get pep talks before they fanned out to register new voters. Democrats have boasted about their superior ground game, rattling off number of offices (33), paid staff (300) and volunteers (thousands).

Republicans counter that buildings don’t vote.

“Office numbers are a false metric and completely miss the point that, as we saw in the primary, Mr. Trump is not a typical politician and attempts to measure the strength of his campaign by old world comparisons like these fail to reflect the enthusiasm and grass-roots support seen by the thousands of supporters and new voters he is attracting to his events and his campaign,” said Jason Simmons, Trump’s North Carolina state director.

Ultimately, the biggest question for Clinton is whether she can pull off the coalition that united behind Obama in 2008. He won at the time by orchestrating one of the most sophisticated and granular mobilization efforts the state has ever seen. Buoyed by a jump in the registration and participation of black and younger voters, the Obama campaign flipped a 13-point Democratic defeat in 2004, to a 14,000-vote win just four years later.

On Monday and Tuesday, the Mothers of the Movement – women who have lost their children to gun violence or at the hands of the police – will stump for Clinton here.

“It was a very strong effort to reach the young people, you have a huge HBCU population down there and we had a very well-organized church strategy,” said Rick C. Wade, who was Obama’s national black vote director in 2008. “It was the inspiration that Obama represented and I think that’s the challenge. How do you get Hillary to connect with those folks?”